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Interview: Matthew Lenton


Interview

Emma Hay talks to Vanishing Point’s Matthew Lenton about doing Shakespeare for the Lyceum, and sticking up for subsidised arts.

Image of Interview: Matthew Lenton
Feature image: Matthew Lenton

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is showing at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Fri 19 Oct – Sat 17 Nov. Click here for more details.

Lyceum productions of Shakespeare are often quite traditional. How will your take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream be different from what we might have seen before?

It’s different because it’s my take. I don’t set out to make things different; I set out to discover my own way of doing things. You use your own particular imagination and personal responses, the things you yourself dream about when you read it to make your own piece of theatre.

Am I right in hearing that you’ve set A Midsummer Night’s Dream in winter?

It’s not actually winter –more like summer in Glasgow. It’s meant to be summer, but it’s not, it’s cold and wet. No-one is enjoying the sunshine. It came from the speech Titania makes towards the start of the play. She talks about a battle with Oberon and the seasons all being out of sync [Act 2 Scene 1].

Has you’re approach to the work differed because it’s Shakespeare?

Atmosphere is always important to me: getting a feeling, and having that overall sense of the world that the play is set in comes first. I like finding the right mood and tone, and starting from there.

It almost always snows in my shows – I like the cold and the atmosphere that comes with it. There’s a beauty and a magic there that you don’t get in the heat.

There are things you have to understand about a text, but for me it’s about making new discoveries and like with every show I do, I like to make these discoveries in the room, rather than on the page.

What are the challenges you’ve come across working with Shakespeare?

I never found Shakespeare particularly easy to understand. I would always avoid them and choose obscure pieces, things like Michael Clark, over a repertory production of Shakespeare. However, I have always liked this one, with its magical, wondrous events, and because it’s like our world but a bit different, more surreal. I always found this one easier to connect with and that’s why this is the one I’m doing. When you start working on it, it may be a bit clichéd, but you find yourself thinking ‘actually, he is a very good writer’.

The good thing about working with Shakespeare is that first of all, the writer is dead so you don’t have to worry about conflicting ideas and secondly, his work lends itself to many interpretations. A Midsummer Night’s Dream could be a light farce, or a primal play about sex. One of the most exciting things is the sheer range of possibilities.

What will the audience get out of seeing this production?

I want to create work that allows the audience to have dreams. When I see a piece of theatre, I like a bit of space, I like things to be cryptic and that’s also what I like to give the audience.

Sometimes, people write off things as accidentally unclear when it’s actually an artistic choice. If you want things spelled out, read a paper. But with theatre, you can think about it. For example, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is there ever a dream? Whose dream is it? Where do the layers exist? You want to create a world people can dive into and spend some time being in.

Jordan Young as Bottom. Photo credit: Laurence Winram

Do you think the changes in Creative Scotland’s funding structure will discourage artists from being more experimental, instead opting for “safer” options?

Creative Scotland need to be categorical and say they absolutely don’t want “safer” theatre. The problem at the moment is that it comes across like they are more concerned with product and what it can be used for (Brand Scotland), but we need them to be clear and say they want to invest in subsidised theatre – the very idea of it – and trust the artists to make the creative decisions.

One of the major concerns is that Creative Scotland will have more control over the content of art.

Shows like Interiors and Blackwatch have been so successful internationally and do a great job of promoting Scotland across the world. The intention of those creative endeavours was to make good theatre, based on good ideas and a creative muse – the artist had the freedom to make good theatre – not an advert. That’s the way round it is proven to work. You can’t legislate for art; it’s art. They need to make clear that they believe subsidised theatre has the right to exist.

Why do you think subsidised theatre should exist?

I come across the argument all the time of ‘why should the taxpayer pay for it?’ Well, to be honest, if my taxes pay for nuclear missiles, bank bailouts and wars, I am damn determined that they’ll pay for something beautiful too. The idea that we need to all agree on what our taxes pay for is ridiculous, it would never work.

The new project programme investment awards have just been made public, are you pleased with the outcome?

Vanishing Point has just been awarded £465,000 by Creative Scotland for the next two years, which is more than we’ve had previously. They’ve shown that they support us and our work.

Are you still concerned about the impact of the move to project funding on theatre companies across Scotland?

What project funding will do is devalue the concept of a core company. That’s how Vanishing Point run and that allows us to make connections, to spend time in places and working with partners. We used to have funding split into core costs, and then the costs to make the work. Now, all of our core costs are absorbed by project funding and being a company just doesn’t seem to be given the value that it should, but being a company and operating as a company is a huge factor in what we do.

Do you think the changes being made will deter budding artists from starting their own companies?

Already you can see fewer people starting up companies, but I think that’s down to other problems too.

We need new companies to keep things fresh. They challenge complacency; they engage with the world differently and bring new things to the table. Without people to do that, making theatre becomes formulaic and it should never be that. New independent companies can be rebels, the naughty kids in the class. We need people who will follow their vision and impulse. If we don’t have more of those, there will be fewer rebels in the world.